The origination of the Wild West Show derived from the interest shown by the east of the rough and wild western frontier. The real west was unknown to them, and they were willing to believe just about anything. The Easterners were enthralled by the west. The shows satisfied their cravings for adventure and allowed the show goers to be apart of the thrill and danger of the West without actually taking the treacherous move there. The Wild West shows preserved the disappearing world of the unsettled and untamed west and brought it to life for audiences.
The Wild West shows were a winning combination of history, patriotism, and adventure. The shows managed to create an enduring spirit of the unsettled west and capture audience’s hearts throughout America and even Europe.
Over time, there were various different Wild West shows. After the first Wild West show was born, dozens of others shortly followed in its wake. Various people, with flamboyant names, such as Dr W.F. Carver, Pawnee Bill, Buckskin Joe, and Mexican Joe began their own unique shows. Women also tried their hand in the business, with names headlining as Luella-Forepaugh Fish and the Kemp Sisters. But out of all the shows, the first, most famous, and by far most successful of all was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, can be credited with helping to create and preserve a lasting legend of the West. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show took the reality of western life and glamorized it into an appealing show. The Wild West shows permanently preserved the legend of the Wild West.
Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody on February 26, 1846. He lived until January 10, 1917. Cody grew up on the frontier and loved his way of life. As he got older, some of his titles he earned included buffalo hunter, U.S. army scout and guide, showman, as well as Pony Express Rider, Indian fighter, and even author.
His track of fame began with his reputation as a master buffalo hunter. While hunting buffalo for pay, to feed railroad workers, he shot and killed 11 out of 12 buffalo, earning him his nickname and show name “Buffalo Bill.” As an army scout, Cody extended his fame by gaining a reputation for bravery. As a well-known scout, he often led rich men from the East and Europe and even royalty on hunting trips. Cody’s fame began to spread to the East when an author, Ned Buntline caught wind of him and wrote a dime novel about Buffalo Bill, called “Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men”. To top it all off, Buntline’s novel was turned into a theatrical production, which greatly contributed to his success and popularity in the east.
Before long, Cody ended up starring as himself in Buntline’s play. Soon after, he started his own theatrical troop. It wasn’t until 1883 when Cody first got his idea for a Wild West Show.
Cody did not want to see his way of life vanish without remembrance. The idea started in his hometown of North Platte, Nebraska. In 1882 he convinced the town to sponsor an “old Glory Blowout” each 4th of July. Events included were a rodeo competition and horseback exhibits. All this provided the idea for his famous Wild West Show.
In creating the Wild West Show, Cody also created the myth of the adventuresome, exciting, and outright wild western frontier. Cody helped pitch-in to give the West its image as we see it today. The shows consisted of reenactments of history combined with displays of showmanship, sharp-shooting, hunts, racing, or rodeo style events. His shows promoted the simple formulas of good vs evil and civilization against barbarism.
Each show was 3–4 hours long and attracted crowds of thousands of people daily. The show began with a parade on horseback. The parade was a major ordeal, an affair that involved huge public crowds and many performers, including the Congress of Rough Riders. The Congress of Rough Riders was composed of marksman from around the world, including the future President Theodore Roosevelt, who marched through the parade on horseback.
Among the composition of the show were “historical” scenes. The exact scenes changed over time, but were either portrayed as a ‘typical’ event such as the early settlers defending a homestead, a wagon train crossing the plains, or a more specific event such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In both types of events, Buffalo Bill used his poetic license to both glorify himself or others while heightening the villainous mischievousness of the “bad guys” (outlaws or Indians) and to embellish each situation for theatrical enhancement. “Typical” events included acts known as Bison Hunt, Train Robbery, Indian War Battle Reenactment, and the usual grand finale of the show, Attack on the Burning Cabin, in which Indians attacked a settler’s cabin and were repulsed by Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and Mexicans.
A more specific historical event in the show might have been a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn also known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. This event was made into a famous act performed in the show, with Buck Taylor starring as General George Armstrong Custer. In this battle, Custer and all men under his direct command were killed. After Custer is dead, Buffalo Bill rides in, the hero, but he is too late. He avenges Custer by killing and scalping Yellow Hair (also called Yellowhand), which he called the “first scalp for Custer”. This reenactment is exciting for the audience and also stresses that if Buffalo Bill rode in on time, Custer and his men may have been saved.
Shooting competitions and displays of marksmanship were commonly a part of the program. Great feats of skill were shown off using rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. Most people in the show were all good marksmen but many were experts. Buffalo Bill himself was an excellent marksman. It was said that nobody could top him shooting a rifle off the back of a moving horse.
(picture above, L to R: Elisha Greene, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack Omhundro, Eugene Overton in "Journal of the West," (p.62))
Animals also did their share in the show through rodeo entertainment. In the rodeo events, cowboys like Lee Martin would try to rope and ride broncos. Broncos are unbroken horses that tend to throw or buck their riders. Other wild animals they would attempt to ride or deal with were mules, buffalo, Texas steers, elk, deer, bears, and moose. Some notable cowboys who participated in the events were Buck Taylor (dubbed “The First Cowboy King”), Bronco Bill, James Lawson ("The Roper"), Bill Bullock, Tim Clayton, Coyote Bill, and Bridle Bill.
Races were another form of entertainment employed in the Wild West Show. Many different races were held, including those between cowboys, Mexicans, and Indians. A 100 yd foot race between Indian and Indian pony, a race between Sioux boys on bareback Indian ponies, races between Mexican thoroughbreds, and even a race between Lady Riders.
All in all, the show had a pretty big entourage. It contained as many as 1200 performers at one time (cowboys, scouts, Indians, military, Mexicans, and men from other heritages), and a large number of many animals including buffalo and Texas Longhorns. Performers in the show were often popular celebrities of the day.
Some of the recognizably famous men who took part in the show were Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Pawnee Bill, James Lawson, Bill Pickett, Jess Willard, Mexican Joe, Capt. Adam Bogardus, Buck Taylor, and Antonio Esquibel. Even more famous were Wild Bill Hickock and Johnny Baker.
Wild Bill Hickock was well known as a gunfighter, marshal and was an established dime novel hero, like Buffalo Bill. His name on the playbill gave a great draw of audiences because they knew him from dime-novels, and he was a genuine scout.
Johnny Baker was nicknamed the “Cowboy Kid” and considered to be Annie Oakley’s boy counterpart. Cody originally took him on in the show mainly because he would have been the same age as his own dead son, but little Johnny Baker turned out to be a great success, was very skilled and ended up becoming the arena director.
The list of famous Wild West Show participants was not limited to men. Women were also a large part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and attracted many spectators. In fact Annie Oakley, one of the show’s star attractions was a woman. Born Phoebe Ann Moses, Oakley first gained recognition as a sharpshooter when she defeated Frank Butler, a pro marksman are age 15 in a shooting exhibition. She became the star attraction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for 16 years, under the management of Frank Butler, whom she ended up marrying. Annie was billed in the show as “Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot”. She was also nicknamed “Little Sure Shot” by Chief Sitting Bull, who was also in the show. Annie was renowned for her trick shots. Annie was able to, from 30 paces, split the edge of a playing card, hit center of ace of spades, shoot down a playing card tossed in air, shatter glass balls thrown in air, hit dimes held between Butler’s fingers, shoot an apple out of poodle’s mouth and shoot off the butt of cigarette from Butler’s mouth. She also performed the last trick shooting the cigarette out of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s mouth in Berlin. Her most famous trick was a mirror trick in which she hit a target behind her shooting backwards using a mirror for aim. These incredible feats of marksmanship amazed and excited people and she generated huge audiences eager to see the display
Calamity Jane (or Martha Cannary) was another distinguished woman participant of the show. Calamity Jane was a notorious frontierswoman who was the subject of many wild stories- many of which she made up herself. In the show, she was a skilled horsewoman and expert rifle and revolver handler. Calamity Jane appeared in Wild West shows until 1902, when she was reportedly fired for drinking and fighting.
Buffalo’s Bill’s Wild West Show continued to captivate audiences and tour annually for a total of 30 years (1883-1913). After opening on May 19, 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska, the show was on what seemed to be a perpetual tour all over the east of America. The show “hopped the pond” in 1887 when Queen Victoria requested the presence of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at her Golden Jubilee in 1887 at Windsor Castle, in England. The whole troop including 200 passengers plus 97 Natives, 18 buffalo, 181 horses, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, 5 longhorns (Texas steers), 2 deer, 10 mules, and the deadwood concord stagecoach crossed the Atlantic on several ships. They then toured England for the next six months and the following year returned to tour Europe until 1892. With his tour in Europe, Buffalo Bill established the myth of the American West overseas as well. To some Europeans, the Wild West show not only represented the west, but all of America. He also created the cowboy as an American icon. He gave the people of England, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany a taste of the wild and romantic west
In 1893 the show performed at the Chicago World’s Fair to a crowd of 18,000. This performance was a huge contributor to the show’s popularity. The show never again did as well as it did that year. The economy and disasters in the south grew too much for the Wild West Show. In 1913 the show was declared bankrupt. Cody was forced to take his tents down for the last time.
Wild West shows have created a lasting image in American history of the American West. Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Shows crafted today’s representation of the West. They were the exaggeration of the reality of the American West, which made it all the more exciting. They have preserved, however accurately, stories of battle and history of the American West. The shows commemorate the settlers and unique attributes and characters of the time period. The legend left behind by the Wild West shows gives tribute to the remarkable period of history of the frontier movement, and beautifully captures the eternal spirit of the Wild West.
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